To say that before Gore’s speech this year’s Democratic convention had taken on the air of the Dukakis convention of 1988–as many of my colleagues were saying this morning–is to insult the Dukakis convention of 1988. After that one, people actually thought the Democratic nominee would win. (He didn’t collapse until later.) This morning, Democrats had no such confidence.
I do think Gore’s address improved his position. His delivery was at least different, and in many ways it was better. During the speech’s first half, before the tedious laundry list of programs and promises, he seemed relaxed and vigorous. There was little humor–asking Gore to attempt humor is always a risky scheme–but the human-interest stories were cunningly crafted. (There was, for example, the welfare mom who went to work and joined the IBEW, and then needed a targeted tax cut to help send her daughter to college! That’s three (3) hot buttons–welfare reform, unions, tax cuts–in one Ordinary American’s story.)
Still, the conceptual basis of the address was a highly questionable form of populism. Consider these lines:
So often,powerful forcesand powerful interests stand in your way, and the odds seem stacked against you. … I want you to know this: I’ve taken on thepowerful forces. And as president, I’ll stand up to them. … It’s about our people, our families, and our future–and whetherforces standing in your waywill keep you from having a better life … [Emphasis added]
First, note that this isn’t quite the standard-issue Bob Shrum “I’m fighting for you” formulation that puts the blame on greedy drug companies, evil tobacco companies, and callous HMOs. That’s there too, of course. But this is something weirder, because the “forces” aren’t specified. They’re dark, mysterious things–it’s almost as if Gore is referring to supernatural phenomena, or appealing to individuals whose personal fortunes have gone wrong for some unexplained reason, even if it had nothing to do with HMOs or drug companies. Occult Populism! Cue the Twilight Zone music.
Second, it’s hard to believe that Gore really believes that the problems facing America, or most Americans, are mainly produced by “powerful forces” that he can defeat. Take drug coverage. Drugs are expensive. Does Gore really think it’s because “the big drug companies run up record profits.” Or is it mainly because … well, drugs are expensive. As science advances–making the “almost unimaginable medical breakthroughs” Gore himself celebrates later in his speech–it simply becomes possible to develop more complex treatments or elaborate means of discovering drugs that are more costly. That’s a “force” all right–the march of progress– but it’s not one Gore can fight and defeat. It’s more an unavoidable problem he has to deal with.
Or take Social Security. Exactly which insidious, powerful special interest is behind the impending bankruptcy of Social Security? Isn’t it more that we Americans have decided to award everyone retirement benefits we can’t quite afford? The powerful interest is us. True, there’s another powerful force at work–the force of demographics, which is producing a huge generation of retirees and a comparatively small cohort of workers to support them. But demography is also not a force Gore can “fight.” It’s more another unavoidable problem he must deal with.
Do voters understand that? Consultant Dick Morris, anticipating Thursday’s populist Shrumarama, argues they do. They know drug companies need at least healthy profits to pay for research into new drugs. They know someone, if not HMO “bean-counters,” should probably try to control health-care costs. At some level they know Social Security’s problems are of their own making.
Gore may know this too. His abstract references to unnamed “powerful forces” could be his way of subtly acknowledging that he’s not up against just individual evil corporations, but basic forces of science, demographics, and history. But if that’s true, isn’t he supposed to be the futurist president who will recognize, channel, accommodate, and ameliorate those forces, not pretend to “fight” them?